By TED CARTER
Long known for its preference to keep its business out of the public eye, the Jackson Redevelopment Authority is refusing to release proposals it received for a convention center hotel by a June 30 deadline.
The city agency had also declined to identity development companies that responded. Friday afternoon, however, the JRA furnished the names of the companies. In addition to Red Leaf Development of Herndon, Va., other developers responding to a JRA Request for Proposals were Hertz Investment Group, which owns many of downtown Jackson’s office buildings; EDT Development Co.; Mississippi Developers LLC; and Mississippi Block Development. The JRA has not yet released their proposals. Red Leaf provided its proposal earlier this week at the request of the Mississippi Business Journal.c
Convention center hotel proposals in previous years have called for Jackson taxpayers to back-stop tens of millions of dollars in development and operational costs. The new round of invitations for proposals promise attractive incentives on the part of City Hall and the JRA.
A developer interested in purchasing, leasing or redeveloping a convention hotel property is eligible for an 80 percent sales tax rebate to cover up to 30 percent of capital costs over a 15-year life for the rebate, the Redevelopment Authority’s RFP stated.
The RFP noted the JRA is willing to explore additional ways to cover any funding gap.
“The Authority understands the economics of the city’s hotel market and may be prepared to provide some assistance in addressing financial issues,” the RFP advised.
In a deal negotiated in 2010, the City and Redevelopment agency offered to back up to $50 million in loans for a $90 million hotel proposed by Transcontinental Realty International, or TCI, of Dallas.
The Texas company eventually lost the deal after winning the RFP to build a hotel. In leaving the deal, however, TCI executives went home with a $7 million payment for land the City originally purchased with federal Community Development Block Grant money.
The Mississippi Business Journal has submitted an open records request for the newest round of proposals. The JRA says it will not make any of them public until the developers making proposals can seek court orders to keep private portions of their proposals they deem proprietary.
The business newspaper made its open records request on July 6. The JRA did not notify the developers until July 10 and in the notification gave the developers seven days to say whether they intend to seek a court order.
JRA Chair Jennifer Johnson, an attorney, said in an email it is not clear whether an RFP response “is or is not” subject to public disclosure “simply by virtue of its submission to a public body prior to any use by that public body.”
Johnson, who pledged more transparency when she took over as chair of the JRA in August 2014, said the JRA’s attorney worries that release of the proposals might have “chilling effects” on JRA efforts to solicit redevelopment proposals “which are needed in order for JRA to accomplish its statutory purpose.”
Tom Hood, director of the Mississippi Ethics Commission, said he can’t address the “chilling effect” question. But he noted state law does allow public agencies to withhold RFP responses in order to give “third parties” an opportunity to seek a court order to withhold information they believe is commercially protected.
However, Mississippi law is not clear on whether the seven business days specified in the statute give the third parties that period to state an intention a court order to actually obtain a court order.
Johnson said no reviews of the proposals have been done and has not indicated whether JRA commissioners will look at the proposals at their meeting scheduled for July 22.
The RFP marked the JRA’s third swing at getting a convention center hotel built.
Former Mayor Harvey Johnson worked out the most recent previous proposal behind the scenes in the closing months of his term. That led to JRA commission approval of a development agreement with Robinson Callen of Tampa, Fla. The JRA, on the advice of its attorney Zachary Taylor, refused to make the agreement public.
The MBJ’s effort to review the agreement became moot when Johnson’s successor as mayor, the late Chowke Lumumba, insisted the JRA issue a new Request for Proposals. The RFP brought a response from Texas hotel developer Journeyman Austin. Not long afterward, the mayor and city council decided against pursuing a hotel development deal.
Efforts to build the convention hotel stayed dormant until Mayor Tony Yarber gave the OK last spring for the newest RFP.
During the delays, Jackson Central Business District’s hotel picture has changed. The JRA has agreed to loan $10 million construction of a a 204-room Westin hotel that is to go nearby on Tombigbee Street. In addition to the City’s $10 million loan, the $60 million Westin has a $20 million loan from Hinds County and a promise of $7 million in sales tax rebates from a tax increment financing district. The Westin developers, Capital Hotel Associates, say they have lined up sufficient private financing and are ready to break ground any time now.
Also, construction has started on the hotel component of the District at Eastover mixed-use development at Interstate 55 and Eastover Drive, fewer than a half-dozen miles from downtown Jackson. Developers say the four-story, 95-suite Residence Inn by Marriott, a business-class extended stay hotel, is expected to be completed by March 2016.
This week, developer Roy Decker of Eldon Development Group said construction is scheduled to start this year on a 100-room boutique hotel in Jackson’s popular Fondren neighborhood about four miles from downtown.
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